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As dancers, we know why we love ballet—but for a new audience member, our beautiful, silent art form may seem like a mystery. Enter Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet. Written by celebrated dance critic Laura Jacobs, this new book (available May 8 from Basic Books) offers insights on how burgeoning ballet fans can better understand and appreciate the choreographic language they're watching onstage. But it's also a compelling read for dancers and experienced dance lovers.

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Ballet Stars

Summertime may be slipping away, but this clip from Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream will transport you to a warm, enchanted summer evening. In this clip from an American Ballet Theater performance from 2004, Alessandra Ferri and Ethan Stiefel play Titania and Oberon, rulers of the woodland fairy realm from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream. At once regal and whimsical, the proud lovers reunite and make peace after a quarrel in this final pas de deux.

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Viral Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Carla Fracci photographed in 1967. Photo via Amicapercaso.

The Fountain of Youth might be in Italy. Alessandra Ferri, 53, is defying all preconceived notions about the length of ballet careers. But she isn’t the first Italian to do so. Carla Fracci, a former prima ballerina at La Scala Ballet and international guest artist, who started her career in the 1950s, didn’t stop when convention might have told her to.

This clip, from a 1987 television series called the “The Ballerinas,” proves it. At 51 years old, Fracci isn’t doing an easy skip of a variation. Here she tackles one of the hardest dances in the classical canon: the Rose Adagio. Aurora’s iconic dance with four suitors is a challenge in stamina, a test in technique and definitely a trial in composure, particularly during the promenade balance section. When this sequence repeats at the end, the music crescendoing as high as the expectations, Fracci is unflappable. With rock-solid strength and softness rivaling that plush pink tutu, she finishes with an ebullient smile.

Best known for her Giselle portrayal, Fracci has (we think) retired from the stage and taken on humanitarian work later in life. In 2004, she was named a Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Association, a United Nations agency dedicated to fighting hunger around the world. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Photo by Giuseppe Pino via Mondadori Portfolio.

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Ferri and Wayne Eagling (1984). Photo by Leslie Spatt via The Guardian.

June 23 is finally here, and we couldn’t be more excited! Tonight, internationally acclaimed ballerina Alessandra Ferri, 53, returns to American Ballet Theatre to reprise the role of Juliet alongside Herman Cornejo in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. For some, tonight’s performance is one more opportunity to see the former ABT and Royal Ballet star dance the role she’s most famous for. For others, it is a chance to see her legendary Juliet live for the first time.

Until then, let’s enjoy this 1984 clip of Ferri, then a newly promoted Royal Ballet principal, in the bedroom pas de deux. With youthful ardor, she breathes life into the Shakespearian heroine. Ferri and her partner, former principal Wayne Eagling, abound in bashful and impassioned embraces, their movements across the stage both dramatic and fleeting. My favorite moment starts at 0:16, as the couples’ gentle cambrés give way to fiery, abandoned lifts.

We thought we had seen the last of Ferri when she retired in 2007. Yet she made an unexpected comeback in 2013, and has since starred in Martha Clarke’s Chéri, John Neumeier's Duse at Hamburg Ballet, and The Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. We’re anxiously waiting to see how Ferri’s matured perspective influences her latest performance, and we can’t wait to see what else the future has in store for her. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Ferri and Roberto Bolle at her farewell ABT performance. (Not farewell for long!) Photo by Nan Melville via NYTimes.

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Alessandra Ferri is unstoppable. At age 53, the seemingly ageless ballerina is still inspiring choreographers, dancers and audiences with her endless curiosity, galvanizing artistry and, of course, those beautiful feet. In the last three years alone, she’s created leading roles in Martha Clarke’s Chéri, John Neumeier’s Duse and Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. And in exactly one month, she’ll be returning to American Ballet Theatre to reprise her most famous role as Juliet in Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

 

Perhaps that’s why Boots No7, a pharmacy chain based in the UK, chose her to star in its recent skincare campaign. In it, Ferri dances alongside a hologram of her 19-year-old self (the age she became a principal dancer at The Royal Ballet). Watching them together in unison, it’s fascinating to see how the delicate, wide-eyed teenager has developed into a powerfully self-assured woman. At one point, the two pause and observe one another with curiosity before the older Ferri confidently bursts away in a series of turns.

The ad may not have much to do with skincare (although it finishes with a close up of Ferri's luminous face), but we can't think of a better spokesmodel. The tagline, “Ready for More,” says it all; Ferri certainly is. In addition to Juliet, she is scheduled to perform with The Royal Ballet and Hamburg Ballet next year.

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Ballet Stars
In rehearsal for Duse with Hamburg Ballet principal Alexadr Trusch. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy Hamburg Ballet.

Alessandra Ferri, the iconic dance actress, has emerged, at age 52, from a six-year retirement into an astonishing post-career. After successes with projects like Martha Clarke's Chéri and the critically praised Woolf Works at The Royal Ballet, Ferri has been tapped by Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier as the muse for his Duse—Myth and Mysticism of the Italian Actress Eleonora Duse. As an actress at the turn of the 20th century, Duse's performances were both highly popular and critically acclaimed, and she was lauded by writers like Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw. The ballet, set to music by Benjamin Britten and Arvo Pärt, will premiere on December 6.

Why did you return to performing?

I realized a part of me was switched off. I love creating and dancing and performing with other artists. I feel very much alive when I do that. The first thing I did—The Piano Upstairs—was a fascinating collaboration with John Weidman. Then Martha Clarke came along (with Chéri). It all happened without me looking for it. Now I'm more conscious of my desire for doing it. At the moment I feel free and much more appreciative of the talent I was given.

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Ballet Careers

Alessandra Ferri, the iconic dance actress, has emerged, at age 52, from a six-year retirement into an astonishing post-career. After successes with projects like Martha Clarke’s Chéri and the critically praised Woolf Works at The Royal Ballet, Ferri has been tapped by Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier as the muse for his Duse—Myth and Mysticism of the Italian Actress Eleonora Duse. As an actress at the turn of the 20th century, Duse’s performances were both highly popular and critically acclaimed, and she was lauded by writers like Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw. The ballet, set to music by Benjamin Britten and Arvo Pärt, will premiere on December 6.

Alessandra Ferri in rehearsal for Duse with Hamburg Ballet principal Alexandr Trusch (photo by Holger Badekow, courtesy Hamburg Ballet)

Why did you return to performing?

I realized a part of me was switched off. I love creating and dancing and performing with other artists. I feel very much alive when I do that. The first thing I did—The Piano Upstairs—was a fascinating collaboration with John Weidman. Then Martha Clarke came along (with Chéri). It all happened without me looking for it. Now I’m more conscious of my desire for doing it. At the moment I feel free and much more appreciative of the talent I was given.

What does John Neumeier wish to explore with you in Duse?

I think John has always been very passionate about theater and acting. Eleonora Duse was the first modern actor. She completely changed the art form. She was a very complex, strong and vulnerable woman and very devoted to her art. It’s funny—when I’m talking about her, I’m saying the same things about myself. She felt alive when she was onstage.

What is it like to portray a real-life character?

It’s so hard in dance to just be biographical because dance is the language of emotion. Duse starts out at the end of her life. John is interested in exploring the different woman she was with all these men in her life, like the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. She really wanted to help and console people. She suffered a lot in her life and was very sensitive to suffering.

Did you make any special preparations for the role?

I visited two museums—one in Venice and one in Asola—which house some of Duse’s original letters and clothes. I also read the book Il Fuoco by D’Annunzio, which describes her life.

Joseph Carman

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Ballet Stars
NYCB's men in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

What left us breathless and wanting more.

Carrie Imler & Jonathan Porretta

Perfectly matched: Poretta and Imler in Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Whenever Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta take the stage together, the audience expects a great performance. The veteran company members are longtime friends as well as frequent partners, and their ease with choreography and one another always shows. But their technical confidence and mutual trust reached rarefied heights in PNB's all–William Forsythe program last March.

The duo were paired in all three dances on the bill, and their pas de deux in New Suite, in particular, showcased them at the height of their careers. Imler and Porretta not only handled Forsythe's demanding choreography with ease, but they infused it with an obvious love for the movements, for one another and for the audiences. The joy they brought to the program was contagious, leaving the crowd giddy with excitement as they left the theater. —Marcie Sillman

Alessandra Ferri

Master of her craft: Ferri in Woolf Works. Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.

Alessandra Ferri has long transported us in roles of larger-than-life passion. But portraying Virginia Woolf, a woman who writes difficult novels—that's possibly even harder to pull off. For Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor's first full-length for The Royal Ballet, he insisted that Ferri, 52, be his star. And she fulfilled this assignment with flying colors. As she stood behind a scrim of jumbled words, we sensed her alertness to language. When she extended her lower leg toward the floor, it was not to show off her exquisite instep, but to point to something she'd observed with a writer's eye.

In the third act, based on Woolf's novel The Waves, Ferri projected a feeling of being at one with the water. As she partnered with Federico Bonelli, she swirled with a natural ebb and flow, occasionally dragged by an undertow. Although we knew this was her character's chosen way of dying, there was something serene about the way she finally got pulled under. Ferri invited you into the tragedy with a lyrical intensity. —Wendy Perron

Matthew Rich

Rich made his last Cedar Lake performance unforgettable. Photo by Shoko Takayasu, Courtesy Jenny Lerner.

The gloomy crowd that shuffled into the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June looked like a funeral procession. They were there to see Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's final performances; they were prepared to grieve.

Instead they found joy, of a deliciously campy variety, in Richard Siegal's adrenaline rush of a world premiere, My Generation. And especially in Matthew Rich, the ringleader of its Technicolor circus. Hair whipping, limbs lashing, Rich attacked the choreography with the full-body exuberance that had become his signature during his decade with Cedar Lake. He has the rare ability to be at once arch and earnest, to give us a sly wink even as he's selling the heck out of Siegal's over-the-topness. Somehow, he managed to make lip-synching along to The Who's "My Generation" look, well, cool. It was his party—and nobody was crying. (There's no need for Rich fans to cry now, either: He's taken his considerable talents to BODYTRAFFIC in Los Angeles.) —Margaret Fuhrer

Misty Copeland

Grace under pressure: Copeland (with James Whiteside) in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Fans of American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland would have cheered at anything she did, so it was automatic that her first Swan Lake in New York City would get a standing ovation. But Copeland's sold-out debut was also artistically satisfying, especially her Odette. For a dancer who consistently brings fire and joy to the stage, portraying the white swan was a challenge. But coached by ABT ballet master Irina Kolpakova and artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Copeland took her time expressing Odette's sadness of being under a spell. Her long limbs extended into space with pathos, settling into exquisite lines. Her head and neck were beautifully expressive, and she took comfort in her closeness to Prince Siegfried (danced with ardor by James Whiteside). Her magnificent timing allowed us to feel the pull between fear and hope, sorrow and romance.

As Odile, Copeland lost her balance during her fouettés, finishing with pirouettes from fifth—yet she remained unshaken and in character. Her artistry under pressure obliterated any worries about whether she deserved her promotion to principal—the first African American woman at ABT to do so—less than a week later. —Wendy Perron

The Men of Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

A true band of brothers: NYCB's men in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

George Balanchine found rich inspiration in sisterhood, in the strong female communities of Serenade and Concerto Barocco. So when New York City Ballet premiered Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes—a ballet with a cast of 15 men and a single woman—its band of brothers immediately drew comparisons to Mr. B's women.

But Rodeo, set to Aaron Copland's famous score, is as much a celebration of NYCB's current crop of men as it is a reimagining of the old Balanchinean model. And what men they are! Several principal dancers—including Daniel Ulbricht and Andrew Veyette—lead the pack, bringing sunny energy and powerful athleticism to the first and last episodes. (Ulbricht's series of decelerating turns in the final movement is as funny as it is astonishing.) The heart of the ballet, though, lies in the lyrical second episode, which Peck devotes to a quintet of non-principals: Daniel Applebaum, Craig Hall, Allen Peiffer, Andrew Scordato and Taylor Stanley. These five find poetry in the choreography's gentle rises and falls, tenderness in its velvety partnering. Together, they paint a sensitively shaded portrait of male intimacy. —Margaret Fuhrer

Emily Bromberg

Bromberg with Andrei Chagas in Heatscape. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy MCB.

Last spring, in the light-pierced kaleidoscope that is Justin Peck's Heatscape, Miami City Ballet's Emily Bromberg, then still a corps member, glowed. As the lead ballerina in the opening movement, she was a convivial member of a streaming-by posse before commanding center stage with her smitten partner—vital for the democratic dynamics of the choreography. Bromberg's speed, sharp transitions and projection (those jumps with her eyes set on heaven!) have been honed in MCB's Balanchine aesthetic. But this recently promoted soloist also draws elegance from her Kirov Academy of Ballet training in Washington, DC. And Heatscape has helped catapult her career. "I gained a sense of freedom from this that I didn't always trust before," she says. Through her poise, agility and emotional translucence, she reached timeless beauty as an artist. —Guillermo Perez

Laura Hecquet

An étoile is born: Hecquet in her Swan Lake debut. Photo by Ann Ray, Courtesy POB.

After dancing many years as an anonymous swan at the Paris Opéra Ballet, there was a sense of vindication to Laura Hecquet's authority as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake last March. At 30, Hecquet proved she is one of the purest exponents of the French school today, all smooth precision, with fouettés like clockwork. And her instinct for tragedy signaled a born principal: Hecquet's Odette understood her fate from the start, and drew the audience in with elegiac adagio work.

Like her classmate, San Francisco Ballet principal Mathilde Froustey, Hecquet was pegged as a future star when she graduated from the POB School in 2002. A decade as a sujet and a serious knee injury later, it seemed like the company would never give her the opportunity to prove herself. Benjamin Millepied promoted her as soon as he was appointed director last year, however, and again to étoile after her Swan Lake debut—overdue recognition for a ballerina who has long been a class act. —Laura Cappelle

Victoria Hulland

Total focus: Hulland with Ricardo Rhodes (left) and Ricardo Graziano in Monotones II. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet.

When The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay named Sir Frederick Ashton the ultimate poet of line in his review of Sarasota Ballet at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this summer, he must have been talking about principal dancer Victoria Hulland. As the sole female in the central pas de trois of Ashton's Monotones II, Hulland was a breathtaking study in total concentration. Every second of Ashton's masterwork was performed with equal attention, whether she was reaching for a partner's hand or being lifted from the floor in a dramatic split. And while Ashton's ballet may be spare, it is not cold. Hulland's exactitude and restraint supported the stage's lunar atmosphere with an otherworldly elegance, as if she were an interstellar acrobat from the deep cosmos. She understood Ashton's approach to abstraction, which always feels human, while her musicality mined the wistful, melancholic spaces in Erik Satie's haunting Trois Gymnopédies. —Nancy Wozny

Andreas Kaas

One to watch: Kaas in The Flower Festival in Genzano. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

When The Royal Danish Ballet: Principals and Soloists brought their self-produced all-Bournonville program to The Joyce Theater last January, they brought along promising corps de ballet dancer Andreas Kaas. And Kaas—who had plenty of featured stage time—more than kept up with his colleagues. A product of the Royal Danish Ballet School, he demonstrated tireless command of Bournonville's vigorous batterie; his explosive jump etched clean lines with diamond-cut precision. But more than that, he was completely invested and alive in whatever role he played. In the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano, he was sweetly attentive towards his partner (the equally impressive Ida Praetorius), a young lover consumed with affection. He burned with good-humored competition in Bournonville's high-stepping "Jockey Dance," and, later, kicked off the tarantella from Napoli with joyful enthusiasm. In an exuberant program full of company stars, it was apparent that Kaas' own is quickly on the rise. —Amy Brandt

Kara Wilkes

Going all in: Wilkes with Robb Breseford in Writing Ground. Photo by Margo Moritz, Courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

Few dancers can master the squiggly, daredevil choreography of Alonzo King, including his 2010 ballet Writing Ground. But for Kara Wilkes, a four-and-a-half-year LINES Ballet veteran, the intense emotionality required for the piece's final movement proved more difficult. In it, four men partner (read: pull, lift, prod, catch, support) Wilkes—though it's not often clear if her character is aware of her surroundings. "At its core, the role represents the spectrum of the human experience," Wilkes says. "Sometimes my character is strong and she knows where she's going. Other times she feels tender, vulnerable—even blind."

Wilkes compares the role (which includes laughing onstage and talking to herself) to swimming in the ocean. But there's something extra eerie about watching a ballerina exquisitely extending her leg one second and scribbling imaginary poetry on the ground the next. It takes courage as a performer to lose one's self completely onstage, and Wilkes went all in, shedding her carefully honed technique for moments of utter realness. —Jenny Ouellette

Dana Benton

Steely precision: Benton (with Brandon Freeman) in Traveling Alone. Photo by David DeSilva, Courtesy Amy Seiwert's Imagery.

In Amy Seiwert's Traveling Alone, Dana Benton is a force to be reckoned with. The Colorado Ballet principal, who originated the role with CB in 2012, performed as a guest with Amy Seiwert's Imagery during the company's Joyce Theater debut in August. And though she is petite, with textbook-perfect lines, Benton's dancing was anything but small. She was especially thrilling in the solo moments. Benton attacked Seiwert's precise choreography with ownership, slicing through the air with angular arms and legs, dropping through surprising level changes and luxuriating in off-center balances. While many contemporary ballets rely on ultra-pliable ballerinas to create a central pas de deux, Benton's steely soloing was a refreshing show of strength and confidence. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Dores André

André, shown here in rehearsal, was a musically nuanced Juliet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

San Francisco Ballet–goers have come to expect fluid, intelligent dancing from Dores André; with her bent for the contemporary, the 11-year veteran has made a mark in dozens of new and neoclassical works. But when she debuted as Juliet, one of her first performances after being told that she would be promoted to principal dancer at the end of last season, the Spanish-born ballerina reintroduced herself as a compelling actress in command of an earthy, expressive musicality. She read Prokofiev's score like a storybook, dancing with a sensitive timing that revealed nuances hidden in its lilting airs and clashing phrases. Immersed in the music, André drew us into Juliet's emotional world, and we hung on her every step—experiencing her star-crossed arc from naiveté to longing to anguished maturity as if for the first time. —Claudia Bauer

Ballet Stars

Photography by Kyle Froman

 

It’s rare to see celebrated ballet dancers outside of the grand opera houses that form their natural habitat. But Martha Clarke’s Chéri, which runs through December 22 at New York’s 294-seat Signature Theatre, gives audiences an up-close look at prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri and American Ballet Theatre star Herman Cornejo.

Based on the novella by Colette, which traces a turbulent affair between aging but glamorous Léa and dashing young Chéri in turn-of-the-century Paris, the multidisciplinary work poses a special challenge for two gifted dance-actors. It also marks a new phase in Ferri?’s post-ballet career. ?”When Martha proposed Chéri, I thought how incredible it would be to play somebody who belongs to me, now, and not to pretend to be 18,?” Ferri says. ?”There is something wonderful about looking at yourself as you really are?—as Léa does in the stories, and as I am doing in this process.?” Pointe went inside an intimate Chéri rehearsal with Clarke, Cornejo and Ferri.

Ballet Training
Alessandra Ferri in "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.

"Don't think about your shape when you first see Siegfried," she tells principal Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette's Act II entrance. "This is not 'port de bras.' This is 'Don't touch me!' " Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.

Call it stage presence, call it the "it" factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.

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For Alessandra Ferri, the greatest dramatic ballerina of her generation and possibly the most famous Juliet of today, parting is not going to be “such sweet sorrow.” On the contrary, Ferri, who is retiring this year after more than 20 years on the world’s stages, is going out with a bang.

At the height of her powers, Ferri prepared to take on two new leading roles in full-length ballets: Marguerite in John Neumeier’s romantic The Lady of the Camellias for La Scala Ballet of Milan, Italy, in March, and Desdemona in Lar Lubovitch’s revival of Othello for American Ballet Theatre’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

She was scheduled to perform both roles years ago, but missed the opportunities when she had her daughters. In her melodious Italian accent, Ferri says, “This year I have these big debuts, which is very nice for me, and I’m very happy that it is happening in my last season.”

Her farewell performance with ABT will be the title role in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, on June 23, 2007, with Italian premier danseur Roberto Bolle. For her, Juliet is as new as if she were doing it for the first time: “You can’t act the role, you have to let Juliet live through you and let the music propel your emotions.”

Going to one of Ferri’s performances is like getting on a roller coaster; you’re not quite sure where it will take you, but you know the ride will be thrilling. Her preternaturally long, slender hands and incredibly arched insteps amplify every movement, and her beautiful elfin face and expressive dark eyes telegraph every emotion to the gallery. At 44, Ferri possesses the kinesthesia of a teenager: Her speed, agility, elasticity and strength make her youthfulness so convincing.

“That part comes from just pure hard work,” says Ferri. “There is no magic.” She spends two hours in the studio working with Gyrotonics apparatus before she goes to ballet class. “The Gyro keeps my body young, makes space between my joints, keeps my muscles elastic and strong, and keeps me properly aligned, so I don’t hurt myself when I dance,” she says.

An elegant sliver of a woman, Ferri, dressed casually chic in a tailored mole-gray shearling coat, brown turtleneck and slim pants, radiates warmth and energy at a cozy cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the apartment she shares with her longtime partner, famed photographer Fabrizio Ferri, and their two daughters, Matilde, 10, and Emma, 5.

Taking a deep breath, she talks about the upcoming turning point in her life: “I have to say, now is the happiest moment for me, ever, as a ballerina. I feel that I have never danced better. I have achieved freedom and gone back to the times when I was a little kid and I loved to dance. And I think it is for this reason that I have decided to stop. I love dance so much that this is what I want to remember.”

The Milan-born ballerina knew from the age of 4 that she was born to dance. Though there was no arts background in the family, her parents supported and encouraged her from the beginning. She studied at the school at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan until the age of 15.

At the Prix de Lausanne in 1980, she won a scholarship to continue her studies at The Royal Ballet School. MacMillan, the eminent British choreographer, recognized her talent early. He began creating roles for her, such as L’Invitation au Voyage, soon after she joined The Royal Ballet, and Valley of Shadows, for which she won the 1982 Laurence Olivier Award. When Ferri reached principal in 1983, the floodgates of fame flew open with leading roles in classical and contemporary works, and she particularly excelled in MacMillan’s full-length ballets.

Her meteoric rise at the Royal caught the attention of Mikhail Baryshnikov, then artistic director of ABT, who made Ferri an irresistible offer: join ABT and be his partner.

She arrived in New York City in 1985, unprepared for the harsh new world she encountered after the sheltered environment she enjoyed at The Royal Ballet. Only 21, she felt intimidated by Baryshnikov as a partner, who was at the peak of his career, and considered herself technically sub par to take on the demanding classical roles that she danced with him. Ferri remembers thinking, “Oh, my God, this is too much. My whole life is too overwhelming.” But looking back she says, “Misha has been my toughest teacher, but a great teacher. He made me realize that you have to work hard, because just talent will get you nowhere.”

For the next few years she toughened up, added many new ballets to her rep and, perhaps most significantly, found her ideal partner in Julio Bocca, a 19-year-old Argentine prodigy, who joined ABT in 1986. Together they
created magic for nearly 20 years until Bocca retired last summer.

Their legendary partnership was built on trust, timing and truth. They shared the intensity and intuited each other’s moods. Some memorable moments were Roland Petit’s fiery sparring duet from Carmen, their ethereal Giselle and the emotional whirlpool of the final pas de deux from John Cranko’s Onegin. Ferri, who likes to dance on the wild side, says Bocca gave her freedom to fly: “He let me dance. He felt my musicality, he sensed what I was going to do and he let me do it, and caught me at the end, which is what made it exciting.”

In an e-mail, Bocca expresses his deep fondness for his adored former partner. “I knew that being next to Alessandra,” says Bocca, “I would shine much better. She always trusted me to find her in the exact place onstage, to hold her in my arms at the right moment—not before and not after. I had never felt that kind of instant and complete understanding onstage until I met Alessandra. From the first minute we had absolute compatibility and special chemistry. The ballets I most recall and those that left me with tremendous emotion each time we danced together were Romeo and Juliet and Manon.”

By 1990, Ferri was already an international attraction. Having worked with Roland Petit in Europe and the Royal, she began globe-trotting from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, Paris to Hamburg, Stuttgart to Canada—always with the crème de la crème of companies. In 1992, Carlo Fontana, then director of Teatro alla Scala, signed her as permanent guest artist with the ballet company. Fontana says, “I began loving ballet, thanks to Alessandra Ferri. I have been director of La Scala for 15 years, and I considered one of my best results the cooperation with this great dancer and woman... an étoile. Alessandra is not only the great artist, she is first of all a true person, sensible and a sensitive woman.”

Ferri credits Wilhelm Burmann, her teacher in NYC for the last 15 years, for making her the dancer she is today. “Willie gave me the freedom to be who I am onstage, to move with the music however I wish, because my body is so finely tuned.” She goes on to say, “You have to translate your emotions in your body, that is how you speak onstage. That comes naturally for me, but your body is your speech. Technique is not the ultimate but the beginning.”

Burmann, who dispenses praise sparingly, says, “Alessandra has been in the best shape of her life for the past several years. I consider her number one among international ballerinas. We are losing an incredible dancer and an incredible person.” 

Looking over Ferri’s vast repertoire, it seems there isn’t a ballet or a choreographer whose work she hasn’t performed. Yet for a ballerina of her stature, relatively few roles have been specifically created for her after the early years at the Royal. Blame it on timing; nonstop guesting created scheduling problems with choreographers and artistic directors. But Ferri has few regrets; never having met or worked with George Balanchine is at the top of the list, though she has danced several of his ballets including Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Apollo, Duo Concertant and, most recently, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with La Scala.

In the summer of 1996, she met Fabrizio Ferri at a Vogue photo shoot for her friend Isabella Rossellini. “I met Fabrizio, and it was love at first sight,” she says. A year later Matilde was born. Soon after, Ferri lost a baby 7 1/2 months into her pregnancy, the worst tragedy she has experienced. “But,” she says, “thank God Emma came right after that.”

At the Pointe photo shoot, Fabrizio Ferri instinctively blended their individual skills for the cover shot. Their bond is unmistakable. She says, “I think what makes my retirement easier is that I am a happy mother of two wonderful kids, and Fabrizio is there, and we are happy. I want to be with them a lot. I am at a point where I can stop. The scales are even.”

Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT, reflects on Ferri’s place in the company over the last 22 years. “It’s
that turn of the page in history,” he says. “Alessandra is the type of artist who can reach across the footlights and transcend the title of ballerina. The best is that she has been part of our identity and growth. One can never replace a unique artist. I really believe she is ready [to retire]—she is in a little state of grace—so how can you feel bad about that?”

Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to several dance and theater publications in New York City and is the dance editor and critic for Show Business Weekly.

Few things in life are more beautiful than Alessandra Ferri. Personally, I could watch old videos of her for hours on end. And it turns out I'm not the only one still in love six years after her retirement: This Friday, the Italian International Dance Festival will present the former prima with the IIDF A Heart For Art Extraordinary Dancer Award at the festival's gala performance in New York City. Other honorees will include famed jazz master Luigi, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and modern dance teacher Elena Albano, who will be given an IIDF A Heart For Art Teaching Award. Find out more at italianidf.com.

Choreographer Roland Petit was for years the ballet world's master of theatrical showmanship. Bolstered by rich, beautifully designed costumes and decor, his works oozed sensual style.

Yet even stripped of all that pageantry, his choreography retains an electric charge. Witness this bare-bones video from some years back of Alessandra Ferri and Laurent Hilaire dancing the pas de deux from Petit's Carmen (originally performed by Petit and his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire). Yes, it helped that Ferri and Hilaire were phenomenal dancers—Ferri a star at La Scala and then American Ballet Theatre, Hilaire a Paris Opéra étoile—with great chemistry. But the real heat comes from the choreography itself. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

It takes the work of a ballet dancer to embody the words of Shakespeare. With the help of Sergei Prokofiev’s masterful score, the Royal Ballet's Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling approach this task with heartbreaking beauty.  They perform the iconic balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in this recording of the company’s 1984 production—and their movement speaks. 

 

Watch how the musical verse of Shakespeare’s words comes to life through Ferri and Eagling's bodies. The stage seems to float beneath their movements. They constantly rush from stage left to stage right, settling for only a moment in picturesque beauty. As they proceed from shy tenderness to overflowing passion, Ferri and Eagling transform into Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, making the audience’s heart sting with the knowledge of their fate. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

Like an actor’s monologue, a ballerina’s solo must achieve the difficult balance between drama and ostentation, controlled technique and theatrical abandon. In the ballet rendition of Rossini’s play, Guillaume Tell, Alessandra Ferri dances the character of Mathilde, an Austrian damsel whose love for a Swiss man is reminiscent of the forbidden love in Romeo and Juliet.

In this clip, performed in Pesaro, Italy in 1995, Ferri’s third act solo evokes the torment Mathilde experiences in her divided loyalties between a cruel father and her lover’s family. Ferri is blocked and tossed by her darkly clad partners, José Manuel Carreño and Rafael Rivero, and we see her increasing desperation as she stretches skyward with each rélévé and piqué. Ferri’s acting prowess extends throughout her whole body: she embodies Mathilde’s hopelessness in her loose floating arms in the chainé turns and the frantic pleas in her darting feet as she reaches and runs.

Ferri retired from American Ballet Theatre in 2007, but this 52-year old continues to create and inspire. Last month, she premiered in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, and we can’t wait to see what role she will tackle next. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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